By Ennis Leon Jacobs, Jr.
I recently wrote an opinion editorial titled “America’s True Critical Race Theory” in response to the political debate in Florida on this civic controversy. I had ulterior motives because my son is deeply immersed in the topic, and a friend, who is a state leader, was deeply moved by the Florida legislative proposals. The article recalled an experience in high school when, during a band trip, I and a classmate were ushered out of the home of a host student because of our race. I recalled the conundrum of the host student who seemed to welcome the idea of getting to know my friend and I, while his family clearly opposed this idea.
This article was published locally initially, simply as a personal reflection. It seems however to have struck a chord and has now been published far and wide throughout the country. I was blessed and encouraged to receive many positive comments, most of them from new “friends with skin of a lighter hue” who expressed remorse and even invited me into their homes. One of the most compelling responses came from a current band parent at the same high school where the original incident occurred.
The varied, and overwhelmingly positive responses to this article confirmed for me that America is better than the political theater which has surrounded this topic. The American social fabric is not a mistake. Its foundational claim that human equality is self-evident has fueled a purposeful and intentional pursuit of an inclusive and democratic society. This is a difficult task given the wide diversity in American genealogy. Yet, this society has taken on the ideal of creating a cohesive melting pot with graciousness.
In contrast to the present political derision, and the echo chambers in present-day media, I believe that there is the wherewithal at the grassroots of this nation to do much better than the political rhetoric seems to imply.
I respectfully offer another personal story to further illustrate my navigation in this truly American journey.
It is no mystery that social acceptance has been a challenge, particularly in my formative years in the 60s and 70s. Yet, at every critical juncture, a person with skin of a lighter hue was instrumental. I chose to major in computers in college because of the encouragement of a high school teacher. I realized I could pass calculus in that major because of an amazing professor. I realized I could get a job in that field because of a wonderful teacher and counselor. I was able to perform and produce in my first job in this field in a major corporation, thousands of miles from home, because of an incredible mentor. However, a plethora of negative racial experiences in my formative years still outweighed all these positives as I matured. I was biased against “bad” white people and felt comfortable in my prejudice. So much so, that I did not want to return to my home state after working in New York and New Jersey early in my professional career. However, I did return for professional school, and thus had the most significant experience in my journey.
I am the firstborn son of one of the most incredible men I have had known, my namesake, Ennis Jacobs, Sr. Born in the Great Depression, in a sharecropping family from South Georgia, Ennis Sr. did not finish high school because of the family farming work. But I have met few men who were wiser. My father moved to Central Florida and started a family ( ultimately nine boys). He found good work in industrial manual labor but suffered a serious back injury. He then became a journeyman and lawn care worker to care for his family. Later, he started a demolition business with his own equipment. Thus, the incident that struck my racial animus core.
When my father took ill in the early 80s, he wanted me to understand his business to continue its operation in his absence. It soon became clear that his illness was cancer, and he would not return.
One day he asked me to drive him to this community outside of Tampa called Seffner ( that big confederate flag on I-75 in Tampa marks Seffner). We drive up to a house with all of the symbolisms one would expect, and he asks me to seek out a man there, as he sits in the car. When this man discovered that I was the son of Ennis Sr. he immediately became respectful. He went out to the car and knelt down to look at him at eye level. Their exchange was one of mutual respect and dignity. I could not process this. I personally witnessed only a few of the insufferable indignities visited upon my father because of his race. How could he not have the bias and prejudice that I was holding onto?
The backstory – this man was allowing my father to dump his demolition trash at a considerable discount from the other landfills. Thus, he was supporting my father’s profits. It hit me like a ton of bricks – these two men took the time to understand each other. I don’t know-how, or how much they were able to cast aside the biases and prejudices, but, I could tell that they had genuinely done so. This is where America must go from here.
The American Dream for me is the best life God has made possible. That life necessarily entails a diverse, inclusive and unified community. I am encouraged by the messages I received from the last article, which show that many, if not most of my fellow Americans share this goal.
For myself, I know I will need to continually rely on a supernatural power to achieve this unity. This power comes from my spiritual beliefs and is described in the Bible, the Book of John, Chapter 17. This is our call to action.
Ennis Leon Jacobs, Jr., is an attorney based in Tallahassee, Florida, and former member of the Florida Elections Commission and, former member and Chairman emeritus of the Florida Public Service Commission.